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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 4/2/09

The UK Minority Report: Has 'Precrime' Finally Arrived?

A recent article in the UK Independent entitled, Police identify 200 children as potential terrorists,  heralds what looks to be the unofficial beginning of British law enforcement's own "Pre-crime" program. For the first time, we can begin to see intelligence gathering and emerging technologies converging in a culture of pre-emptive law enforcement. Officials interviewed in this article are keen to play down any concerns about racial or religious profiling, insisting the program is an innocuous one. Civil liberties group may argue otherwise.

The new program known as The Channel Project is being run by the UK's Association of Chief Police Officers and hopes to target children with traits which may indicate an attraction to "extreme" views and a susceptibility to being groomed by "radicalisers" in the future.

In the article, Sir Norman Bettison, Britain's most senior officer in charge of UK terror prevention was quoted as saying, "We are targeting criminals and would-be terrorists who happen to be cloaking themselves in Islamic rhetoric. That is not the same as targeting the Muslim community." Sir Norman goes on to describe how the new "Channel Project" has already intervened in the cases of at least 200 children who they thought to be at risk of "extremism". Sir Norman continued, "What will often manifest itself is what might be regarded as racism and the adoption of bad attitudes towards 'the West'.

The program was started 18 months ago in Sept 2007 and officials are pointing out increased results being generated by their new project- at least by their own standards. In their first 9 months they had originally identified only 10 children up until June 2008. They now have over 200 youngsters on their books. No doubt, by this time next year, those numbers will have tripled or quadrupled.

Here we can see shades of the USA's notorious anti-terror "No Fly" Lists, which grew from a few thousand in 2002, to a monster list containing over 1 million names of US citizens who, according to security agencies, pose a "security risk" to other passengers.

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The concept of 'Precrime' was first introduced in a 1958 short story by visionary science fiction author Philip K. Dick and was later adapted for the big screen in Steven Spielberg's 2002 blockbuster movie The Minority Report.  The story illustrates how Tom Cruise's character, Precrime Chief John Anderton, is able to track down and apprehend homicidal criminals before they actually commit their crime. He is aided by a trio of resident psychics called "Precogs" who are kept in a saline flotation tank deep inside Precrime Headquarters. Their brains are hard-wired into a police supercomputer from which Anderton and his colleagues spend their days sifting through "previsions" of future crimes which the psychics have seen in the future.

In this 2054 depiction of Washington DC, future police are within their jurisdiction to make arrests and make criminal indictments based on crimes which, according to police psychics, assailants are certain to commit. From a law enforcement perspective, this adds a radical new extension of traditional police powers which were previously limited to surveillance, establishing probable cause, obtaining a warrant, and then arresting or charging a perpetrator after an actual crime has been committed.

In a bygone era, British scientists and police once indulged in the Victorian fascination of mapping the cranium structures of criminals, hoping to predict "criminal types". A stretch by anyone's imagination, yet, this belief in 'precrime' has deep roots. It ultimately emanates from the idea that science can somehow overcome the complexities of living in a human society. Victorian author H. G. Wells illustrated this idea within the concept of the 'scientific dictatorship', which was later developed by his protégé Aldus Huxley.

Here we are in 2009 where the UK Association of Chief Police Officers' new initiative has already begun to extend its warrant into the future by collating speculative analysis obtained from various 'vigilant' teachers, parents and other community figures who have signed up with the new initiative. Although at present, the UK's Channel Project is only using speculative testimonies, it is foreseeable that in this current media-induced climate of fear, emboldened technocrats will seek to merge their newly formed social networks with various computerized precrime systems similar to ones being developed by the USA's Department of Homeland Security(DHS).

Enter the world of the super crime fighting computer. Originally entitled
Project Hostile Intent, the DHS have been developing a sensory feedback system designed to aid security staff in identifying potential wrong-doers in public places like airports and municipal buildings. They attempt to do this by analyzing their pulse rate, breathing, skin temperature and changing facial expressions. This is essentially a souped-up, 3-D version of the tried and tested(and still unreliable) polygraph test. The DHS has since updated this project into a less-hostile-sounding enterprise called the Future Attribute Screening Technologies(FAST) program. As with all of these newly introduced programs, DHS assures the public that FAST has been through stringent privacy controls (pdf) and that the data collected is not necessarily matched to a name. DHS claims that (at least at this stage anyway) their data is only used to make decisions about whether to question someone and is discarded after that session.

Computer muscle is on the increase though and experiments like that of Purdue University's A.I.(Artificial Intelligence) '
predictive data mining' computer systems may eventually come online, adding a third leg to new and emerging modern-day "precrime" applications. A belief in the ability to predict human behavior certainly follows along the technological progression of a technocratic police state, like that of George Orwell's harrowing, yet eerily accurate novel 1984. In a January 2009 edition of Science, a News Focus article by Richard Stone (see also related Science Magazine Podcast) reports work done by a group of social scientists in which they attempt to predict mass social disturbances, large protests and riots. The usefulness of such predictions is far from clear, and yet these social scientists are more than eager to share their mass disturbance predictions with various interested government departments.

The danger here is clear. A very real trend exists post Sept 11th 2001, whereby nations like the US, Britain and Israel have cleared the path for "pre-emptive attacks" and wars. The examples are now well-documented and form the basis of these nations' foreign policies in the 21st Century. Downwind from the current orthodoxy of international pre-emptive military policing, we see a domestic trend with entirely new columns of law enforcement and security projects being erected in order to prevent future crimes and terrorist attacks, where an ever-increasing culture of "arrest first, ask questions later" has become acceptable to many law and policy makers.

Taking current trends into account, it is not inconceivable that security agencies will seek to merge the UK's Channel Project-type local intelligence gathering programs with DHS sensor or advanced A.I. data mining systems- in order to create the perfect beast in their ongoing effort to find the next potential criminal or terrorist. But in reality, how effective are these expensive efforts? Does the cost to civil liberties run too high? These are questions that we will surely debating in the coming years.

When we weight-in the number of people in a country like Great Britain against the number of terrorist attack fatalities we can see that the myriad of complex and expensive security applications start to amount to what internationally renowned security technologist and author Bruce Schneier calls "
security theatre" - a far cry from risk assessment-based security, or security reality. A country like Great Britain which has a population of 55 million people has not seen, according to official accounts, a terrorist fatality since 2005. This puts the odd of a potential terrorist attack somewhere well above your chances of winning the national lottery jackpot, yet not nearly as imminent as the odds of being killed by a drunk driver or a chronic disease. And the odds of being killed by a terrorist in a country the size of the US are certainly no better.

So if genuinely real risk assessment is not driving this mushrooming security industrial complex, then what is? Few will argue that research grants relating to security applications like RFID or GPS tracking, CCTV MPEG4-based image recognition and data mining are worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. With the economic downturn affecting most areas of business, the security and surveillance sectors are seeing markets expanding and profits on the rise- a global industry that is now worth hundreds of billions. Driving research and development in these areas, we see the US government spending even more on domestic Homeland Security related research grants now than they have done in the past with traditional academic stables like engineering and mathematics. What this means is that instead of producing a scores of engineers, mathematicians and scientists, countries like the US are instead producing a generation of graduates with
advance "Jackboot" science degrees.

If civil liberty laws are relaxed to such a degree that they ultimately become 'irrelevant' in the new climate of the hyper-preemptive security state, then this leaves the door wide open for more experimental precrime-type applications that we are starting to see emerge today. Applications which rely on screening, profiling and speculative intelligence will be used to generate new 'pre-arrest' warrants and could become common practice. The UK's Channel Project should be a stark warning to privacy and civil liberty advocates.

In the same
Independent article, a UK Home Office spokesman comments, "We are committed to stopping people becoming or supporting terrorists or violent extremists. The aim of the Channel project is to directly support vulnerable people by providing supportive interventions when families, communities and networks raise concerns about their behavior." The article adds a counter point here, "Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain said the police ran the risk of infringing on children's privacy. He warned: "There is a difference between the police being concerned or believing a person may be at risk of recruitment and a person actually engaging in unlawful, terrorist activity."

Whilst universities, corporations and governments continue to develop precrime-type applications and technologies, privacy advocates will rightly point out that the terms like 'security' and 'liberty' are not likely to coexist happily in this new hyper-security state, one built around a culture of perpetual fear and anxiety.

Of course, America's own founding fathers had a thing or two to say about these affairs of men. Benjamin Franklin left us with this little gem of wisdom:
"They who would give up essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither- liberty nor security."
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Patrick Saint James is a writer with links connect world leaders, corporations and international institutions. Patrick has a passion for civil liberties, paleoconservative ideals, the pursuit of truth and engaging in hard talk on the very toughest (more...)
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